Digital Marketing

Google SERP Changes: A Month Later

Google’s desktop SERP changes are now officially one month old. On February 22, Google eliminated the right hand column of paid search ads and increased the number of ads that could appear above natural search results from three to four. In iProspect’s original analysis immediately following the change, data indicated that this change favored paid search by shifting traffic away from natural search. We’ve compiled another performance analysis to evaluate impact on advertisers, examining performance results on key desktop queries for the month before and after the change. Now that the dust has settled, data actually shows that there was only minimal impact on the primary KPIs—great news for advertisers!

From a paid search perspective, the iProspect client set actually benefitted from decreased CPCs for both brand and non-brand queries, coming in a -5% and -20% respectively. This is a welcomed relief for advertisers after 2015 brought an average year-over-year CPC increase of 13% for iProspect clients. Despite this, with fewer spots to compete in the SERP and the avid consumer shift to mobile, we absolutely expect the inflation trends to continue.

As you’ll see in the chart below, natural search CTR across the entire client portfolio still experienced a slight decline for branded queries (down 1.4%), but this could be attributed to natural fluctuations. On the other hand, non-brand queries actually experienced a 9% improvement in CTR, quite the opposite of the original anticipation. This is particularly significant considering the ongoing shift in traffic away from natural search toward paid search that we’ve seen as a result of a number of SERP changes in the last twelve months, most notably on mobile devices, as you can see in our Mobile SERP analysis.

Is Organic Search Becoming Obsolete?

Absolutely not! From a consumer perspective further insight indicates that even with more paid ads, users are still seeking a mix balance of informational vs. transactional content, and it’s critical for brands to be present for consumers in both instances.

Take the below keyword “top travel destinations,” for example. As users become more informed in their travel adventures, information-seeking searches are on the rise. This query should be heavily driven by content-rich results, an excellent opportunity for brands to gain exposure in a non-transactional environment.

Another example, “What is an index fund?” In this case, we see a Voice search result, driven exclusively by organic content. Regardless of the informational nature of this query, there is still ample opportunity to use a balanced strategy of both paid and organic to understand the person behind the search and their intent.

Next Steps

Overall, it appears that Google’s original predictions were correct; the impact of the desktop SERP change was minimal to advertisers as a whole. This is certainly not the last time Google will make a major change to the SERP, and iProspect recommends the following focus areas to support search marketing excellence across both paid and organic in the wake of constant disruption.

  1. Gather insights from consumer intent across different content experiences (voice search, local search, paid search) and optimize your multi-channel messaging and onsite content to produce the best experience.
  2. Develop a robust content strategy for the long-tail to capitalize on pockets of high-converting queries.
  3. Focus on quality score in paid search efforts to offset auction inflation, adopting a ‘test and learn’ mentality to swiftly take advantage of new tools that search engines provide marketers. 
  4. Employ advanced customer targeting utilizing both Remarketing Lists for Search Ads and Google Customer Match to align marketing dollars against the most relevant consumers.


About the Data

  • Based on Google AdWords and Google Webmaster Tools data for over 100 clients
  • Traditional paid search only—data analyzed excludes PLA, Hotel Ads, YouTube, and GDN


Note: Steve Beatty, Head of  Owned Media, contributed to this post.